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Jon Kessler, The Palace at 4 AM, 2005, mixed media. Installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York. Photo: Rick Haylor.
NO CONCEPT COMPREHENDS THE ART OF THE PAST DECADE, but there is a condition that this art has shared, and it is a precarious one. Almost any litany of the machinations of the last ten years will evoke this state of uncertainty: a stolen presidential election; the attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror; the deception of the Iraq war and the debacle of the occupation; Abu Ghraib,
its own lack of shared meanings. the scapegoating of immigrants. . yet sometimes in a manner that transforms this debilitating affliction into a compelling appeal. that this state once again appeared to be (as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940) “not the exception but the rule. certainly it was precarious long before 2000. Reagan and Thatcher led the charge of neoliberalism with the battle cry “There is no such thing as society.” and that. the financial house of cards . This social instability is redoubled by an artistic instability. immigrants) in ways that made their lives even more precarious. . as the work at issue here foregrounds its own schismatic condition.” was “to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.² Again. It is little wonder that the concept of the “state of exception” (developed by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt) was revived.” a project now long since abandoned. and rendition to torture camps. then. this situation is not entirely new. the ecological disaster. as a consequence. and it is this heightened insecurity that much art has attempted to manifest. our own government came to operate. Prior to Bush and Blair.Guantánamo Bay. out of bounds. gays and lesbians. For all the discussion of “failed states” elsewhere. methods.” targeting the most vulnerable (the underclass. the proper path was to push the media of art to “the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. another problematic presidential election. the health-care crisis. Katrina.” In his view. routinely and destructively. this condition became all but pervasive.” Clement Greenberg wrote seventy years ago in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch. precariousness seems almost constitutive of much art. even to exacerbate.³ . Paradoxically.”¹ Perhaps our political bond—whether we call it the social contract or the symbolic order—is always more tenuous than we think. “The true and most important function of the avant-garde. the camp seems to have become (as Giorgio Agamben asserted in 1994) “the new biopolitical nomos [principle] of the planet. or motivations. Over the past decade.
Clark argued that such “self-definition” was in fact inseparable from “practices of negation” produced precisely out of “relativities and contradictions. The orderly presentation of handmade readymades here—a priestly frock neatly folded on a bare plywood board. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. Robert Gober presented an untitled installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in which we were ushered into the aftermath of 9/11 as though into a dream made up equally of forlorn objects of everyday life and nasty bits of American kitsch. and among recent projects the following have remained most vivid for me. a convulsive White House. T. screens. and our own harried minds wired wide open to . and ritualistic. Late that same year. J.⁵ In early 2005. faux-petrified planks of wood produced in bronze. all at once. On the contrary. the trashed palace of Saddam Hussein. in fact.S. Jon Kessler staged The Palace at 4 AM. it is concerned with letting this formlessness be. cables. for the rows of these sea-changed tokens also evoked the aisles of a church. both the “confusion” of ruling elites and the “violence” of global capital. as it were. as directly as possible. and so on—was at once forensic. And. in a revision of Greenberg nearly thirty years ago. on a far wall hung a headless Christ on the cross (made of cement and bronze).”⁴ In the art I have in mind. this mimesis of the precarious is often staged in performative installations. a babel of Rube Goldberg gadgets. and wires that was engineered to evoke. so that it might evoke. pristine pieces of beeswax fruit in a crystal bowl.” with negation understood here as “an attempt to capture the lack of consistent and repeatable meanings in the culture—to capture the lack and make it over into form. the one who kills in order to redeem.However. like so much evidence laid out in a police warehouse–cum-morgue. beeswax body parts perversely conjoined. As might be expected. at P. an acephalic apparition that condensed the beheaded hostages in Iraq of the time with the figure of America as Jesus the sacrificial victim turned righteous aggressor. but not as a making over of formlessness into form. negation is still wrested from relativities and contradictions.
(The galleries happen to be one kilometer from the square. forbidding such demonstrations within a one-kilometer radius of Parliament Square). touristic postcards. 2007. Kessler responded. For the first eight months of 2007. Photo: Jean Vong. placards.the obscenity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. New Museum. so he also inscribed a . opposite the Palace of Westminster in a lived protest against Anglo-American aggressions in Iraq. there appeared a reconstruction of the sixhundred-plus weathered photographs. reworking TV bulletins. flags. 2006 (on the remit of a new law. With small surveillance cameras relaying the bizarre actions of little makeshift automatons on nearby monitors. and franchised toys into delirious dramas that played on the deadly obsessions of the period. Installation view. since June 2001. to the chaotic image-world of the Bush era. instead of the usual sculpture. digital video projection. seductive ads. New York. directly and indirectly. and well-wisher notes that a British subject named Brian Haw had assembled. Only days before this one-man retort was removed by police. Wallinger photographed its manifold pieces and on that basis produced his painstaking replica. prompted by this display. banners. Mark Wallinger presented State Britain in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain. The 5th Light. 14 minutes. on May 23. From the series “The 7 Lights. where. military reports. 2008.” 2005–2007. Paul Chan.
say. including the Serpentine Gallery in London and the New Museum in New York..⁷ Finally. and to the nation at large. to the city. the entire piece seemed. with telephone cables bending along the sky. or Our Lady Above the Waters). and everything else also appeared utterly abandoned. or sunlight filtering through a canopy of leaves.g. cell phones) to the portentous (e. and sometimes to ascend. Human figures also float past. Paul Chan presented the series “The 7 Lights. a staging of the Massacre of the Innocents and thus an indirect rebuke to the church (one of the oldest in Münster). in several venues in 2007 and 2008. the tacky umbrellas signaled the opposite of shelter. each projection begins benignly enough. with some of the doll parts painted silver or otherwise molested. for Skulptur Projekte Münster. Our Lady offered no sanctuary.section of this perimeter on the floor. little chairs and tricycles.) According to the artist. (In this case. But the mood quickly darkens as silhouetted images begin to pass by—objects that range from the mundane (e. as if in a collective rapture. turning her grim Gothic back on these miserable leavings. a flock of birds). and the memory of victims plummeting from the World Trade Center towers is difficult to suppress. like State Britain. the “extreme verisimilitude” of the reconstruction was necessary both to underscore the authenticity of the original and to insist on its value. consisting primarily of six digital animations projected on floor and wall. at least in this instance. twelve casual assemblages made up of cheap dolls and toys.) In fact.⁶ That same summer. Quickly blown apart.g. but it also confronted viewers with documents of violence (including images of Iraqi children maimed by American bombs) that the official media had suppressed. Evoking the passing of a single day. plastic flowers and umbrellas.” 2005–2007. “The 7 Lights” thus suggests an apocalypse that is equally . as if to a private hell. and suggested that. Isa Genzken scattered. on the square beside the Catholic Überwasserkirche (also known as Liebfrauen-Überwasser. the museum had provided a last resort for oppositional speech.. Sometimes these images seem to descend.
” “To respond to the face. To act out the precarious. at the same time. from precem. to understand its meaning. such as Musée Précaire Albinet.⁹ Sometimes it is mournful (as in Gober and Chan).”⁸ Yet what I want to underscore in the word is already present in the OED: “Precarious: from the Latin precarius. yet it is strong in the installations I mentioned above. and Genzken). his sometime collaborator the French poet Manuel Joseph has also used the term.” Judith Butler writes. prayer. in a short text on la précarité “as a political and aesthetic apparatus.”¹⁰ This is the face put forward by the art . sometimes desperate (as in Kessler.” Butler argues. Butler explores the notion of “the face.” which the French philosopher poses as the very image of “the extreme precariousness of the other. staged in the Aubervilliers banlieue of Paris in 2004. is not only to evoke its perilous and privative effects but also to intimate how and why they are produced—and thus to implicate the authority that imposes this antisocial contract of “revocable tolerance” (as Joseph puts it). I came to the term precarious via Thomas Hirschhorn. and many of his projects. “means to be awake to what is precarious in another life or. hence uncertain. rather. The note of entreaty is largely lost in the English word. but in all instances this importunate quality implies that the entreaty carries the force of accusation as well—an attesting to the violence done to basic principles of human responsibility. “In some way we come to exist in the moment of being addressed.” This implies that this state of insecurity is not natural but constructed—a political condition produced by a power on whose favor we depend and which we can only petition. then.” In “Precarious Life” (2004). “and something about our existence proves precarious when that address fails.catastrophic and beatific. Wallinger. it evokes our everyday world as a precarious Plato’s Cave of flitting shadows without enlightenment. the precariousness of life itself. obtained by entreaty. are very much to the point here. depending on the favor of another. her brief essay on Emmanuel Levinas. precarious.
” However. This is a crucial dialectic. invented. “he is still so convinced of the unity of all beings. Flight out of Time. The precarious has many other registers than the ones noted. . trans. See Yve-Alain Bois et al. no. in other words.” Critical Inquiry 9. 5.. “Theses on the Philosophy of History. Gabriel Orozco).” October 123 (Winter 2008): 185–204..of the past decade that has most affected me. In “L’infâme et la Tolérance révocable: La précarité comme dispositif politique et esthétique. 5. in his great diary of Zurich Dada. 1 (September 1982): 139–56. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books. It concerns a ‘condition’ whose duration is not guaranteed. for all that the world of Dada is a chaos of fragments.g.’ and ‘particularization. 153. 1974].” Thanks to Hirschhorn for sharing this unpublished text with me.’ ‘disaggregation. “An Interview with Mark Wallinger. “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art. 8. 7.. of the totality of all things. I think we are witnessing art performing ‘agonism. In response to a questionnaire on this condition. ranging from the outlandish (e. and it is active in much of the art discussed here. it is “a gladiator’s gesture. but amid “the dissonances” it is very difficult to maintain. trans. “What we call Dada is a farce of nothingness in which all higher questions are involved. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. trans. “What Is a Camp?.” in Means Without End.” October 105 (Summer 2003): 166–76. by right. 2. I think what we are seeing today is art miming its context. Clement Greenberg. and imposed this contract. decreed. Walter Benjamin.” the late-eighteenth-century French satirist Antoine de Rivarol wrote . Avant-Garde and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press. 93). Clark. but they are well documented elsewhere. Mike Kelley) to the poetic (e. on the contrary. NOTES 1. at times in her work Genzken appears perilously close to the “point of selfdisintegration. Elsewhere I have written about this strategy of mimetic exacerbation in relation to Dada. 257. For example. based on semiaccidental encounters. 6. Giorgio Agamben. Hal Foster is Townsend Martin ’17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. See Thomas Hirschhorn. J. 188. a play with shabby leftovers.” Joseph writes: “Precariousness. is put into practice by means of a provisional authorization. by a ‘revocable tolerance’ accorded by the Letter of the Law —law as conceived. except for the men who have drawn up. the Dadaist does not give up on totality. Ball suggests. My sampling is arbitrary. . 91. “The word précaire. 2005). that he suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration” (Flight out of Time. that is. in its very heterogeneity.g.” in Illuminations. 1961). and I can only point to the works here. Musée Précaire Albinet(Aubervilliers: Éditions Xavier Barral. the curator Kelly Baum writes: “What if art’s heterogeneity signals possibility instead of dysfunction? What if heterogeneity is art’s pursuit instead of its affliction? What if. 45. 65–66). 4. 1969).” Hugo Ball writes on June 12. . 9. it is its subject as well” (October 130 [Fall 2009]: 91–96. 154. written by man. Ann Raimes [New York: Viking. 1916. T.” See my “Dada Mime. 3.’ Heterogeneity isn’t just contemporary art’s condition. 2000). art were to productively engage current socio-political conditions.
“proves how little we obtain from prayer. seeing that this word derives from it” (as quoted by Joseph).” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso. 10. Judith Butler. 128–51. 2004). 134. “Precarious Life. . 130.(as if in anticipation of Kafka).
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?